Kyle Hendricks’ infamous poker face didn’t betray his excitement as he warmed up at Wrigley Field for the first time in nearly a year, cameras forming a semicircle around the mound. But he was immersed in the moment.
“It was so gratifying to finally get back on that field,” Hendricks said after the Cubs’ 10-1 loss to the Mets, “seeing the fans, running out with my teammates, just the little things.”
As the Cubs failed to pull off a three-game sweep, all eyes were on Hendricks in his first major league start since July 5. The Cubs took him off the 15-day disabled list Thursday to make his season debut.
He is what you think [when you think of] the Cubs right now,” catcher Yan Gomes said. “He’s the guy with the most seniority. So to have a guy like him here again, it’s great.”
Hendricks allowed five runs (three earned) in 4⅓ innings. But he did show glimpses of what has made him great in the past.
“Kind of an emotional day, it all adds up,” Hendricks said. “At the end of the day, just getting to this point and going back out there was number 1. Huge.”
With the start, Hendricks became the 12th Cub to pitch 10 or more seasons for the team. His resume includes an ERA title and a World Series title.
“That’s what I like best about him — he’s the same human being every day,” manager David Ross said.
The work Hendricks did this offseason to shorten his arm’s trajectory, inject athleticism into his shooting and train speed wasn’t about changing him. Their objective was to recover the best version of him and keep him healthy, after consecutive negative seasons.
“Kyle pitches the way Kyle pitches,” Gomes said of Hendricks, who relies on command rather than dominating hitters. “The guy has had a tremendous career with it.”
Gomes caught Hendricks in Milwaukee last July when he left the game early with what was called shoulder soreness at the time. Then, when Hendricks pitched his first bullpen session this spring, Gomes made sure he was behind the plate, even though he wasn’t scheduled to attend Hendricks’ session.
“I’ve been to IL a few times,” Gomes said. “And sometimes it seemed to me that you were pushed to the side, and you were running your own show, and you were trying to stay out of the way of the guys. If anything, I wanted him to feel like he’s part of this team. He is the teacher’. He’s a big part of the Cubs.”
Gomes was back behind the plate Thursday in a full-circle moment. He understood what it took for Hendricks over the past 11 months to get back on the mound at Wrigley Field.
“My teammates were very supportive the whole time,” Hendricks said. “It helped me a lot to have the confidence to go back and do my thing. But frustratingly, on the other hand, I couldn’t build on the momentum we’ve built in the last two games.”
Hendricks allowed a leadoff double, two walks and a sacrifice fly in the first inning. He then settled in and pitched a perfect inning with two strikeouts. He allowed four straight singles in the third on soft contact. He then removed the side in order. He allowed one hit and hit a batter in the fifth. He then left the game.
“Anyone can pitch when things are going well,” pitching coach Tommy Hottovy said before the game. “I want to see if he goes mechanically wild on a pitch or loses a couple, how quickly he can make those adjustments. When he’s at his best, he’ll miss one and then immediately lock it back down.”
He hadn’t gone back to the old Hendricks. But after nearly 11 months on the sidelines, he wasn’t expected to do so right away.